I often wonder about the lives of child actors after the glory of their turn in the spotlight has faded. Do they, in later years, look back and wish they had had a normal childhood (whatever that might be) with the chance to do all the stupid and silly things we all get up to when we are children and, worse still, teenagers?
In this new play by John Logan, we do not actually get an answer to my question, but we are in similar territory because the two principal characters here found fame when they were both children, though not because they were actors. Alice Liddell Hargreaves was the inspiration for Alice in the famous children's classic 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' written by Lewis Carroll, and Peter Llewelyn Davies was identified as the Peter who provided the name for the main character in the equally famous stage play 'Peter Pan' by J M Barrie. Both of these people found that the fame which was enamelled on to their being in their formative years, remained with them inexorably for the rest of their lives. In the case of Peter Davies, it seems to have been a millstone round his neck, to the extent that he hated his association with 'Peter Pan'.
The play starts with a factual encounter between Alice and Peter which took place in America when Alice Liddell Hargreaves was 80. Alice was in America for the centennial of Lewis Carroll's birth. In this play, they meet in a dusty old storeroom where Peter asks Alice if she is interested in writing her memoirs. Peter has his own publishing company and is interested, he says, in the truth, but she fends that off saying he is 'presumptuous'. In what follows, we move back in time to see Peter and Alice interacting with the men who inadvertently made them famous: Lewis Carroll (real name: Rev Charles Dodgson) and James Barrie. Both of these men seem to have originally had chance encounters with their muses. James Barrie became so close to Peter's family that he informally adopted Peter and his 4 brothers when their parents died. And Charles Dodgson became a close friend of Alice's family for many years until a sudden break in the relationship occurred in 1863. That has led to much controversy and speculation about the nature of Dodgson's interest in Alice.
Maybe this play was written with Ben Whishaw in mind. If it wasn't, then it should have been. Mr Whishaw positively embodies vulnerability with his slender, almost delicate frame, boy-next-door looks and wistful presence. Mr Whishaw's Peter is an intelligent, articulate man, who is nonetheless haunted by his childhood, and seems ill at ease in the adult world. In a sense, he is a man who belongs nowhere because his past provides no comfort, and his adult experiences – in the army during World War I and the death of his parents and his brother Michael – compound his emotional trauma. It is not entirely surprising that 'Peter' appears first in the title of Mr Logan's play. If my assessment is correct, the play is more about Peter than Alice. In a way, Alice provides a contrast to the troubled Peter, who apparently hated his connection with the character who stole his name and more besides. Dame Judi's Alice is more self-assured and in control of her life, even if she finds herself in rather dire financial straits which have forced her to sell her copy of Carroll's book. But the past does not seem to haunt her in the way it affects Peter. In the other roles, Olly Alexander is perfectly cast as a wonderfully extraordinary Peter Pan, Derek Riddell is the complex and slightly unnerving James Barrie, and Nicholas Farrell suggests something darker in Charles Dodgson's character, in spite of his wonderfully distinctive and reassuring voice.
'Peter and Alice' is a short play at around 90 minutes, but it feels like there are a few hours of material packed into it. If there is a 'dream team' for a production, this could well be it – or, one of them at least. Apart from Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in the lead roles, the play is directed by Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram is the brains behind the fine design. That line-up alone will be sufficient, I would imagine, to ensure packed houses. And, on the night I saw it, there was indeed a full and appreciative house. However, I found myself unsure and in some ways uneasy about this play. First, there is a lot of information to consider regarding the relationships between Barrie and Peter, and Alice and Carroll. Some of the biographical details are controversial and inconclusive, and subject to much speculation. So I was left wondering just what I could trust in terms of factual accuracy. On the other hand, the concept of examining the relationships between these two authors and their respective muses is both fascinating and intriguing and so it draws one in, just like reading the lurid headlines in the tabloids. However, it means that, yet again, we are intruding into the lives of Peter and Alice, and I found that uncomfortable territory.
"They both [Judi Dench & Ben Whishaw] give beautiful, heart-catching performances in this haunting play that sounds profound notes of loss and grief...poignant and spellbinding production...It’s a beautiful and searching play that will live long in the memory."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Laboured and over-written...The evening strikes me as that true rarity: a Grandage dud."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"In all honesty I got more out of the performance and Michael Grandage's production than I did out of John Logan's 90-minute play, which is an elegant literary conceit offering surprisingly few revelations.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The play, while admirably high-minded and interesting, is inevitably a bit doom-laden. How can a story which looks back so much, not least on the losses of the First World War, be anything but sorrowful?
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"It feels too wordy – the characters often tell rather than do – while trying to relate so much that happened in the pair's lives to their fictional characters sometimes feels forced.."
Julie Carpenter for Daily Express
"The production is attractive but at times laboured, and the writing is occasionally overblown...Peter and Alice is short – less than an hour and a half, without an interval – yet feels flabby. It’s not Grandage at his best, even if for fans of the stars it may still be a treat."
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard